The Hays Code

On this day in 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code went into effect. Also known as the Hays Code, for Will H. Hays (the Motion Pictures Association’s first chairman), the Code was a set of self-imposed censorship guidelines for cinema, and was a response to growing demands from religious and civic groups to improve the content of motion pictures.

In the 1920s, Hollywood was rocked by a series of scandals, including the 1921 death of actress Virginia Rappe. Rappe died from a ruptured bladder; pioneering comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was accused of violently sexually assaulting Rappe. Supposedly, the trauma from the rape caused her death (there are various theories on why Rappe’s bladder ruptured; among them, that she’d had an abortion or an untreated sexually transmitted disease). Although Arbuckle was subsequently acquitted, the scandal tainted the movie industry. Many felt Hollywood was a hotbed of immorality, and demanded the motion picture industry clean up its act. Enter Will H. Hays.

Hays, a former Postmaster General under President Harding and Chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1918-1921, began his tenure as Chairman of the newly founded Motion Picture Association in 1922. His primary objective was to reduce the costs state censors were imposing on movie studios; most states had their own censorship boards at the time, and could demand the studios make any cuts they deemed necessary for a film to be shown in their state. This form of censorship was perfectly legal; the Supreme Court had ruled unanimously in 1915 (Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio) that free speech protections did not extend to motion pictures. In response to the ruling, state censorship boards popped up in many states, demanding various cuts to films, meaning a studio might have to edit several versions of the same film to be shown in different states. This process was obviously very costly, and studios were looking for ways to mitigate those expenses.

In 1927, Hays suggested to studio executives that self-censorship might be the best approach, and the execs reluctantly agreed. In a resolution passed on June 29th of that year, the studios established a set of guidelines known as “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls”. Among the “Don’ts”:

  • No pointed profanity
  • No licentious or suggestive nudity
  • No inference of sex perversion
  • No white slavery (yes, you read that right – slavery of other races was perfectly acceptable)
  • No miscegenation
  • No ridicule of the clergy

And among the “Be Carefuls”:

  • The use of firearms
  • Brutality and possible gruesomeness
  • Sedition
  • The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue
  • Rape or attempted rape
  • Man and woman in bed together
  • Excessive or lustful kissing

Not content with mere guidelines, Catholic groups implored the industry to adopt these standards as code, and, hoping to avoid further government intervention, the studios agreed. On April 1, 1930, the code became the law of Hollywoodland. The code was divided into two parts: the first part was a set of general principles which prohibited a picture from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it” and the second part was a precise list of items that could not be depicted. Much of that list derived from the earlier “Don’ts”.

Initially, the code was not strictly enforced, but that changed in 1934. On June 13th of that year, an amendment to the Code was adopted which established the Production Code Administration (PCA). Hays put Joseph I. Breen, a Catholic layman with experience in public relations, in charge of the PCA. Under Breen, enforcement of the Code became rigid. One notorious instance of censorship under the Code was Casablanca: the film could not contain any reference to Rick and Ilsa having slept together (although it’s clearly implied) and the Code forbade the filmmakers from showing the two consummating their adulterous love for one another, making the famous ending of the film inevitable.

Many film directors balked at the self-imposed censorship necessitated by the Code and found creative ways around its precepts. One such director was Alfred Hitchcock, who found a way around the so-called “Three second rule” (on-screen kisses couldn’t last longer than three seconds) by interrupting a two-and-a-half-minute kiss in 1946’s Notorious between stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman every three seconds.

One film that was significantly altered by the Code was 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Based on Tennessee Williams’ play, the film was not allowed to explicitly state that Blanche’s late husband had been gay, so he was portrayed as “sensitive” – an obvious allusion to his sexual orientation.

In 1952, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned its earlier decision, ruling that motion pictures were entitled to free speech protections (Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson), but the Code continued to be enforced throughout the decade. By the late 50s, competition from television and foreign films allowed for some relaxation of the Code, and film directors continued to push the boundaries. Many films in the 50s were released without approval from the PCA, including Some Like It Hot and Anatomy of a Murder. Throughout the 60s, films like Psycho, The Pawnbroker and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continued to erode the power of the Code, and in 1968, it was abandoned altogether in favor of the ratings system.

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